A History of Christmas

The birth of Jesus has been celebrated by Christians for centuries during Christmas. However, before the birth of Jesus, people celebrated the winter solstice. Easter was the most important holiday in the Christian calendar until the fourth century when officials decided to mark Jesus’ birthday as a holiday. Pope Julius decided the day should be the 25th of December, where the traditions of the Roman holiday Saturnalia were merged with the rise of Christianity.

Scandinavia and Germany

Burning Wood on Fire Pit

The Norsemen and women celebrated Yule on the 21st of December and the festivities continued throughout January. They celebrated the winter solstice and return of the sun when fathers and their sons would carry home logs for the fire. People would feast until all the logs were burnt – which could take days! The Norsemen thought that each flame from the fire represented a new animal that would be born during the next year. 

At the end of the year, farmers would slaughter most of their cattle so they wouldn’t have to feed them over the harsh winter months. It was a rare time when there was a supply of fresh meat alongside an abundance of beer and wine and everybody joined in with the celebrations. 

Odin was celebrated by Germanic people during the mid-winter. People feared him, believing that he watched over them as he flew about the night sky, deciding who would perish or prosper. 

The Roman Empire

Io, Saturnalia! FOLLOWING HADRIAN

The Roman Christmas holiday of Saturnalia was celebrated in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festivities went on for over a month, where food and drink were in plenty of supply. Roman society had a strict hierarchy, with the Emperor at the top and slaves at the bottom but during Saturnalia, this was reversed, with slaves pretending to be their masters!

Families celebrated by swapping presents and decorating their homes with wreaths and other greenery. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. People went out singing in the streets and were not allowed to give lectures unless they were funny. 

The Roman Christmas holiday of Saturnalia was celebrated in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festivities went on for over a month, where food and drink were in plenty of supply. Roman society had a strict hierarchy, with the Emperor at the top and slaves at the bottom but during Saturnalia, this was reversed, with slaves pretending to be their masters!

Families celebrated by swapping presents and decorating their homes with wreaths and other greenery. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. People went out singing in the streets and were not allowed to give lectures unless they were funny. 

17th Century England

The Life of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell swept through England and took over in 1645. Cromwell was a strict puritan and enforced religious reforms, even cancelling Christmas because it was “too decadent”. 

The Victorians

A Victorian Christmas
Image: Bridgeman Art Library

The Victorians introduced many of the Christmas traditions we are familiar with today, without them, we may never have had the Christmas cracker or Christmas cards! The industrial revolution changed how people celebrated Christmas in Britain. With increasing wealth and a rising middle class, families could take time off to celebrate Christmas over two days. The introduction of railways also meant workers could travel back home over the festive period. 

Factories produced toys in mass numbers, which made them cheaper and more affordable. Before the revolution, toys were often handmade and only available for the wealthy. Many poorer families received fruit and nuts in their stockings in the 1870s – when the tradition of placing a stocking over the fireplace became popular. 

Father Christmas Vs Santa Claus

History of Santa Claus & Father Christmas | Sky HISTORY TV Channel

Father Christmas was usually dressed in green and was celebrated in old England as part of the midwinter festival. His green outfit was meant to represent the coming of spring and new life. 

Santa Claus is a completely different character, who came from the Netherlands during the 17th century when settlers travelled to America. From the late 17th century, he came to Britain, where he travelled around on his sleigh pulled by reindeer, leaving gifts for children after jumping down their chimneys. 

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